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The Comeback: How Colleges Can Re-Engage Students with Some Experience but No Degree – Part Two

Re defining who adult learners are means changing the way they’re taught.
Re defining who adult learners are means changing the way they’re taught.

The term “adult learners” means different things to different people.

From corporations looking to reskill their employees to former inmates re-joining the workforce for the first time in years, different learners require different things.

Evo: Your team is taking a very different approach to how you’re engaging these learners to drive their re-engagement persistence and success. How did you shift the mentality around student services?

LR: It was a growing process. I mentioned the 39,000 adults in Pitt Community College service area who completed some college but no credential. When we began to talk about 39,000 individuals, I think a lot of our student services staff were ready to quit their jobs and leave because they said they couldn’t handle that number of potential students. I want to make sure that everybody understands that the 39,000 prior students were not just individuals who had attended Pitt Community College previously, but they may have attended some other college or university. We then selected 1,500 who were enrolled in college in the previous five years

 I sat down with the whole recruitment and enrollment team and said, we’re going to find a way to make this happen. The initiative took off and the team became very active in developing different strategies to help adults. And they’ve got very innovative, different ideas generated from my staff. Once we got it started, it just grew and grew and grew. And then as we watched it, we started asking what can we do to, to better serve these returning adult students? What can we do to better engage them?

I think a lot of times students walk away from an institution because they don’t feel connected to that institution, or they don’t feel there’s someone they can go talk with. Or there is something that doesn’t drive their interests. We now talk with students about their dream and what they really want to do in life? And then we try to build around their aspirations and goals. We also ask what are your barriers? What’s keeping you from being here? We did some deep diving and soul searching to implement the Adult Learning Center. It is a totally different concept. When we look at adult learners, we know they have a lot are fear in coming back to college. So, we have to address that fear. We must address access. We address how do we sustain adults once they get back into the institution and how do we keep them connected? How do we keep students informed?

JS:  Having the President’s support was critical to the implementation of our Adult Learner Initiative. Our adult re-engagement team consisted of the registrar, recruitment, marketing, some of the deans, our AVPs and, and vice presidents. So it was a team approach, but it took marketing recruitment, enrollment services and more to come together under one thought and one concept to really drive this effort and make it happen. Although we started organically, as mentioned earlier, April 2021 is when we received a huge boost of support from our colleagues at the John M. Belk Endowment and the NC Reconnect Initiative. From there, we just, we took off.

Evo: These programs are expensive. At the end of the day, none of the stuff you’re doing here is pocket change. It requires conscious investment. It requires strategy. How do you justify those kinds of line items in, in a period where like, as an industry we’re being challenged on costs?

LR: The former way we thought about adult learners is that they were not college ready. Now we are asking ourselves are we student ready? We also believe that there is no one in our society today that we should push aside and say you’re not ready for college. We need everyone in this economy to be able to give back or to have a great life, to update their standard of living. Pitt Community College also implemented a re-entry program, where individuals who have been formally incarcerated are involved counseling and services that they need to re-enter to society and job training.

The poverty rate in our county is around 24%, as an institution we want to reduce the level of poverty. How do we lift people up out of poverty through education without starting with individuals who have not been successful in the education arena?   We go beyond just enrolling individuals who walk through our doors. We take our education to them within the community. I was very fortunate to meet a gentleman by the name of Dr. Dallas Herring, who was the founder of the North Carolina Community College System. And I had a chance to sit at his feet some years ago as a young person. He was known for saying, “let’s meet people where they are and take them as far as they can go.”

That’s what we’re trying to do is meet people where they are and take them as far as they can go. Our motto here is educating and empowering people for success and that means all people, not just those who can walk in the door and start classes. We may have to remediate some and some students we must provide services to help them to stay, to be retained here.

JS: In the State of North Carolina, we have a MyFutureNC goal that states by the year 2030, 2 million North Carolinians will earn a credential or degree. That’s another initiative here in North Carolina that we’re working on to support adult learners as well as our workforce in the eastern region of North Carolina. To have those adult learners come back to school to earn that credential and/or degree is a benefit to the their overall economic mobility.

LR: We just redefined what working with adult students mean, and that is that we recognized that they have different needs than other populations of our students.  And we’ve finally figured out that our adult learner needs are more impactful and complex than the needs of our other students.

This interview was edited for length and clarity